A few months ago, I addressed the cases of Bible Studies under fire, including that of Michael Salman, a pastor in Arizona who was put in jail for, according to him, holding Bible studies. However, as time went on, we found out that the real reason this convicted felon was jailed was because, like a convicted felon, he flouted the zoning rules and broke laws with wild abandon. Now we’re finding out that Salman broke more laws and is up for more felony jail time for Medicaid Fraud.
Now comes word that another family, this time in Florida, is being fined for their Bible Study. This case seems a little different at first glance. Shane and Marlen Roessiger have been holding a Bible Study on Friday nights at their home with 10 participants, posted a small sign outside their home offering a phone number for prayer, and now have been issued fines of $250 per day for their zoning violations. Obviously, it’s a case of the eeeeeeevil government again, right?
Well… hold up, kids.
1. The “victim” in this case is not a random person. His name is one Shane W. Roessiger and his wife Marlene (I’ve seen it spelled differently), and he has a history of clashes with the law over religious issues. That’s not to say that the law is always right, but when you have a history, it gives more credit to those who say you are currently in violation of the law.
2. The neighborhood he lives in is a crowded, dense neighborhood. Even adding 5-6 cars for 10-12 people could cause major traffic headaches for people driving on the streets, especially on a regular basis on a busy Friday evening.
3. Take a look at this picture of his home from Google Street View. See the big honking cross he has in his front yard? Yeah, well… that’s not the problem. The problem is that he’s posted a small sign in his front yard that advertises a dial-a-prayer phone number. The problem is that while the city ordinances are OK with real estate and political signs, any and all other signs are verboten. So you can’t even post a “puppies for sale” sign in your yard, by law.
So… what’s happened here? Well here’s what I’m seeing:
- A dedicated, well-meaning, but aggressive young man starts a home-based ministry. While he has a history of clashes with the law, he doesn’t appear to be of the “convicted felon” mode of Michael Salman. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here.
- Traffic increases on a regular basis, and while the occasional party would be OK, regular traffic problems cause issues for neighbors. They ask for help, but get none, and so they go to the city.
- The man puts up a small sign in his yard in violation of local ordinance.
- The city works with the Bible study, offering them ways to mitigate the issue, but are met with defiance.
- After repeated attempts to address the issue, the city issues fines.
- The man, still aggressive and defiant, takes his case to the interwebs and the news media.
Again, we get back to the “vacuum of neighborliness” I mentioned in my previous article, where someone could’ve been a better neighbor, but wasn’t, deciding that it was more important to hold your ground on holding Bible studies than to communicate Godly love to those who live next door to you. It’s not a government conspiracy – it’s simply a matter of people needing to be good neighbors and show Christian love while they’re supposedly teaching Christian theology, and maybe a little bit of a badly written local sign ordinance. And let’s be honest: if the government really wanted to crack down on religion, it wouldn’t start with a single homeowner and zoning regs.
That’s why, again, I’m going to post my 7 Rules of Not Being a Jerk About Your Bible Study. Take heed (again), people:
- Hosting a Bible Study in your home is a good thing. Our faith is a critical element of who we are as people, and strengthening that faith through study and fellowship is a wonderful part of growth.
- Not being a jerk about your Bible Study is an equally good thing. Just because we have a responsibility to share our faith doesn’t mean we have a right to be a jerk about it.
- If you’re going to host a Bible Study in your home, be a good neighbor to those around you. Love your neighbor as yourself by being pleasant about your Bible Study. Just because you think you have the constitutional right to have a Bible Study doesn’t take away your neighbors’ rights to live in peace.
- Try to keep your Bible Study size appropriate for your neighborhood. If you’ve got a 3-bed 1,500 sq ft house in the burbs and you’re hosting 50 people… you may want to break up into smaller groups. That way, you limit the amount of traffic on the road and keep transportation around your neighborhood moving smoothly. You also have less risk of someone ticking off your neighbors by blocking them in their driveways, damaging their lawn, or creating too much noise.
- Keep lines of communication open between yourself and your neighbors. Let them know what’s going on and when – and keep to the schedule. If you say it’s going to be from 7-9 pm, don’t hold things over until 9:30. Make sure your neighbors have your phone number so that they can contact you if there’s a problem. If they do contact you with a problem: address the problem. And invite your neighbors (and don’t get offended if they say no). Don’t ruin a relationship with someone you share a fenceline with because you’re got a bug up your butt.
- If you’re holding weekly services with chairs, flyers, a pulpit and a website, you’re a church. Act like one by providing a safe, friendly environment for worshiping God. If that means that you’re going to have to move your activities to a more public location, then do so. Trust God to provide through offerings, donations, etc.
- Finally, and most importantly: don’t be a jerk. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. If a neighbor calls you to complain that there’s too much traffic and noise, then listen to them and try to work with them. If the city shows up and says that you need to have clearly marked exit doors, then go down to Lowe’s or Home Depot and pick up some exit signs. If the city tells you that the structure you’re in is unsafe for the crowd you’re drawing, then by all means, find another structure or split into smaller groups. If you’re going to represent Jesus to people, then act like He would.